A pair of F-35 fighter jets arrived at a U.S. Marine base in western Japan on Wednesday, marking the first deployment of the stealth aircraft outside the United States and reflecting the country’s policy of focusing on Asia.
The move is expected to increase the importance of U.S. Air Station Iwakuni as a key military post in the region at a time when Japan faces rising Chinese maritime assertiveness. Some F-35s will arrive later, raising the total number of the deployed aircraft to 16, according to the U.S. military.
The Yamaguchi Prefecture base is also set to accept about 60 carrier-based aircraft now stationed at the U.S. Navy’s Atsugi Air Facility in Kanagawa Prefecture, with the relocation to start in the second half of this year in line with a realignment plan for U.S. forces in Japan.
Local governments hosting the Iwakuni base, meanwhile, have called for thorough safety measures to be taken especially after one of the aircraft caught fire in midair in October in the United States.
F-35s are equipped with high-performance radar that can detect ballistic missiles and are capable of escaping radar detection.
The model also drew attention when U.S. President-elect Donald Trump complained in a Twitter post last month about the “tremendous cost and cost overruns” of the planes. Lockheed Martin Corp., a leading company of the internationally developed F-35, promised last week to reduce the cost of future units.
Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada told reporters that deployment of the aircraft “will strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance’s deterrent capabilities and contribute to the stability in the Asia-Pacific region.”
The planes that came to the Iwakuni base on Wednesday are F-35Bs, the Marines variant of the F-35 plane. They departed from Air Station Yuma in Arizona on Jan. 9, according to the U.S. military.
The F-35B fighters, capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings, are successors to the F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8 Harrier jets currently deployed at the Iwakuni base.
They are expected to be operated on the U.S. Navy’s amphibious assault ship to be deployed at its Sasebo base in the southwestern Japanese prefecture of Nagasaki possibly this fall.